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Budget ax threatens Crist agenda

TALLAHASSEE — Florida's poor, sick and elderly might not be the only ones who lose out in the state budget. Gov. Charlie Crist's priorities are likely to take a hit, too.

As the 2008 legislative session passed the halfway point last week, some of Crist's priorities are imperiled by too little money or have all but been ignored by lawmakers.

Republican majorities in the House and Senate, facing a $2.5-billion drop in revenue, are proposing deep cuts, especially in health care, that may force layoffs in state agencies. Legislative leaders favor a 6 percent college tuition hike that he has not endorsed. And lawmakers would spend less money than Crist wanted in many areas, from drug treatment for prison inmates to per-student spending for public schools.

To be sure, some elements of Crist's broad legislative agenda are slowly gaining steam, such as making it easier for hospitals to add beds and for retired or inactive dentists to work in underserved communities.

But on many money matters, such as a $200-million energy grant program, Crist's financial proposals have stalled.

The governor will have to decide by next month whether to sign a budget that puts people out of work during economic decline and reduces services to foster children, seniors and people with catastrophic illnesses.

The upbeat governor downplays the idea that his agenda is getting short shrift and says the 60-day session is far from over.

"It's only the fourth inning of a nine-inning game, and I remain hopeful," Crist said. "When the final conference occurs and we see a final budget, it's going to be in a good place, given the difficult circumstances."

• • •

A big part of the budgetary disconnect between Crist and his fellow Republicans in the Legislature is explained by timing. Crist built his Jan. 31 spending proposal based on rosier revenue projections in November. Tax collections have spiraled downward every month since.

Crist also relied on accounting shifts and more gambling revenues than either chamber has embraced so far.

Crist did win an important victory last week. House leaders reversed course and agreed the state will dip into a pair of reserve funds if hard times continue through 2008-09, an idea they dismissed when Crist proposed it months ago.

Only two weeks earlier, the House budget chairman, Rep. Ray Sansom, R-Destin, wrote a commentary in the Orlando Sentinel that said using reserves was "fiscally irresponsible" and "politically expedient." Sansom is now a leading proponent of letting Crist spend cash reserves.

House and Senate budgets awaiting votes this week would cut school spending (by at least $85 per student) for the first time in memory, despite Crist's assurances to voters that passage of the property tax cut in January would not diminish school funding. His Jan. 31 budget plan called for a $1-billion increase in education spending.

Other Crist priorities that are not funded are a 2 percent pay raise for state employees, $64-million for outreach programs for the uninsured poor in Hillsborough and 13 other counties, and $100-million for mandatory physical education in middle schools.

Crist has emphasized the need to improve children's lives. But it's likely the Legislature will leave him with a wide array of cuts in child health care and slash up to 5 percent of jobs, or about 700 positions, in the Department of Children and Families. That includes cutting 71 frontline child abuse investigators and 205 direct service workers who help poor people qualify for food stamps and cash assistance at a time when the demand for such help is growing.

"It's pretty severe," said DCF Secretary Bob Butterworth. "If the budget as it's submitted now passes, children and families will definitely not receive the services they need."

Republican lawmakers say it's unavoidable. "We've got budget constraints," said Rep. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, an architect of the human services cuts. "We think, though, that the department (of Children and Families) is still able to perform its mission."

The House is expected this week to consider a Crist proposal to create market-based, mandate-free strategies to encourage insurers to sell health policies to some of the 3.8-million uninsured Floridians. But lawmakers are not yet sure how Crist's vision will cut the number of uninsured.

• • •

Legislators say privately that it's time for Crist to be more forceful in resisting harmful cuts to essential programs. But he resolutely opposes tax increases, including a $1-per-pack cigarette tax increase, leaving little room for maneuvering.

"The governor is going to have a huge say in this budget," predicted Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, the House Democratic leader. "And I don't think the governor is going to tolerate cruel and wrongheaded cuts."

But it's unclear exactly how the governor would prevail with such a message. It's also not Crist's style to twist arms. He works the phones to lightly encourage lawmakers "to do the right thing," as Crist described the advice he gave Bean.

So far, that message isn't resonating with a Legislature that never considered his budget plan realistic, particularly when asked about Crist's insistence that there should be $1-billion more for education.

"That's a joke, right?" said Sen. Steve Wise, R-Jacksonville, the Senate education budget chief.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Different budget priorities

Examples of where Gov. Charlie Crist differs with the Legislature:

Crist House Senate
K-12 education funding change +$1-billion -$219-million -$298-million
Merit pay for
excellent teachers
$120-million $47.8-million $31.9-million
Middle school
physical education
$100-million 0 0
Community college, university tuition No change +6 percent +6 percent
14-county health outreach pilot $63.9-million 0 0
Inmate substance abuse treatment $28.9-million $4.5-million $7.4-million
Film production incentives $40-million 0 $9-million
Pay raise for state employees 2 percent None None
Number of state employees 115,674 111,459 112,240

Source: House, Senate and governor's budget proposals

Budget ax threatens Crist agenda 04/06/08 [Last modified: Thursday, April 10, 2008 11:20am]
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